Barry Sheppard's
The Party
The Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988
A Political Memoir

Volume 1: The Sixties


Review by Fred Feldman

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This review appeared in the May 11, 2005, issue of Green Left Weekly, an Australian revolutionary socialist newspaper. Fred Feldman was a long-time member and leader of the Socialist Workers Party. He is now a member of the socialist group Solidarity.

The revolutionary heritage of the '60s turmoil

By Fred Feldman

How has the Cuban Revolution helped those trying to forge a revolutionary party and movement in the United States? What was the role of the Black struggle and Black nationalism in the radicalisation in the US? Who was Malcolm X and how did his revolutionary ideas impact on politics? What is the role of women's liberation and gay liberation in the struggle for social progress?

How did a small revolutionary party contribute to the struggle to force US imperialism out of Vietnam? How was a movement of millions built to end that war? How can revolutionaries effectively rally popular support against efforts to repress them legally or by extra-legal violence? How did a couple of hundred stubborn but ageing activists, having held their group together through the McCarthy witch-hunt, participate in building an activist revolutionary organisation that peaked at about 1600 members in the early 1970s?

These are only a few of the issues taken up in Barry Sheppard's extraordinary and indispensable memoir of the US Socialist Workers Party's participation in the turmoil of the 1960s. This is the first of two volumes, the second of which will describe the problems that accumulated in the 1970s and culminated in a counter-revolution in the 1980s. The party leaders lost heart, rejected the revolutionary perspective that had been strengthened by the struggles of the 1960s, purged the membership of all who disagreed, and settled down to a routine existence as a small, inward-turned sect. Today, the SWP is uninvolved and even hostile to most of the manifestations of class struggle taking place beyond its heavily guarded borders.

I am not exactly an above-the-battle reviewer. Joining the Socialist Workers Party's youth group, the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA), in 1964, I was a member until 1999. I went through a lot of the experiences that Sheppard describes in this volume, and was similarly inspired and formed as a rebel by them. In addition, along with Gus Horowitz and Caroline Lund, I was a co-editor of this vitally needed contribution to the history of the revolutionary movement. I consider myself an unreconstructed 1960s revolutionary, and the events Sheppard describes made me the person I am.

Sheppard describes his evolution from a young dissident in elementary school to the developments in the late 1950s that led him to the SWP. From the early 1960s to the mid-1980s, he was part of the group's top national leadership. He is now a frequent contributor to the journal Links.

The book is full of vivid portrayals of party leaders and others. An important chapter is devoted to the revolutionary Black leader Malcolm X and his evolution from a separatist religious leader with a strong revolutionary thrust to a revolutionary internationalist leader of the Black "nation within a nation" in the US and spokesperson for the oppressed everywhere.

A running theme is the defence of the movement against repressive attacks, whether a gang of counter-revolutionary Cubans attacking a meeting in defence of Cuba in Boston, the organisation of broad protests against the murder of a YSA member by a commie-hating racist in Detroit or many other instances. These culminated, in the wake of the exposure of the Nixon administration's role in the Watergate burglary, with a suit against the federal government, which helped sharply push back FBI disruption efforts against the movement.

United action is the theme of these comments - reaching out to everyone who can be won to participate in the fight, without prejudice or imposing our views on others. This is also a theme of the book's many rich chapters on the struggle against the war. Sheppard provides detailed and vivid pictures of experiences that demonstrated the centrality of mass action, the importance of united-front action open to all who were ready to act against the war, and the importance of resisting the efforts of the liberals to channel the fight onto the axis of capitalist politics.

However, Sheppard's portrayal of the antiwar movement highlights something that is sometimes forgotten or insufficiently remembered today. It takes more than correct tactics on the part of antiwar activists to defeat an imperialist war, especially in the homeland of the main aggressor. The Vietnam War of US imperialism was not defeated just by the Vietnamese, though their colossal revolutionary effort was decisive. Nor was it just a combination of the Vietnamese Revolution with the antiwar movement.

The fight to destroy Jim Crow segregation in the South did not stop for the war. It won as the war was escalating. In the course of this struggle, the Black population rose up in cities across the US. Black political parties began to emerge that challenged the power structure.

This was the era of the Black caucuses in the United Auto Workers and the victorious Miners for Democracy movement in the coalfields, and the United Farm Workers revolt of the oppressed Mexicano and Chicano farm workers. And of the mass protests of Chicanos (descendants of Mexican immigrants and of those who had lived in the areas of what is now the southwest United States stolen from Mexico in the 1848 war).

The women's movement began fighting for abortion rights and equal employment opportunities. And gays rose up to effectively take control of New York's West Village from the cops, who had oppressed them for decades, in the great Stonewall rebellion of 1969. This was not a period of mass antiwar demonstrations alone, but a period of general social unrest that challenged the capitalist structure.

And the struggles that decided the Vietnam battle did not take place in Vietnam and the US in isolation. Sheppard describes the SWP's participation and support for a revolutionary upsurge in France, fighters in India and Czechoslovakia, Palestine - all part of the world upheaval that helped push back imperialism. Sheppard travelled the world as a representative of the party, meeting with fighters in Japan, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), and other countries.

Barry Sheppard gives a flavor for the wide-ranging debates that were normal in the SWP - on issues ranging from Black nationalism and the Cuban Revolution to guerrilla warfare in Latin America. The SWP was a programmatic party (an ideological current that had arisen out of the clash in the Communist International between the rising Stalinist bureaucracy and the International Left Opposition led by Trotsky), and one joined because you had come to agree with basic elements of that program.

But especially relative to other organisations on the US left - the Communist Party, Students for a Democratic Society, Progressive Labor, the Black Panther Party, etc. - the SWP was a party with basic democratic procedures and wide-ranging freedom of discussion. The image of an unending atmosphere of repression portrayed by split-offs who had failed to convince a majority or even a large minority is belied by the scope of the discussion bulletin and many other facts.

I personally think the programmatic party-ideological tendency type of party, imposed on generations of revolutionists as a result of the reactionary victory of the Stalinist bureaucracy in Russia and the Communist International, began to become outmoded with the victory of the Cuban Revolution, and even more so with the substantial disintegration of the Stalinist bureaucracies and parties.

But exactly what will replace it is not that clear yet, at least to me, but will probably begin to be resolved in practice - as happened in Cuba and has been taking shape in Venezuela - before it is resolved in theory or program.

Barry Sheppard's story is an inspiring look back at a revolutionary organisation - the SWP of the 1960s - that threw itself into struggles day-in and day-out, that explained revolutionary ideas to everyone it could reach, and that instilled in its members a revolutionary perspective about the future of the US and the US working class and oppressed people.

Since the SWP has become a defeated and isolated sect in the subsequent years, this is a vitally important salvaging of an important part of our revolutionary heritage that was in danger of being lost.

The book is enriched by an 18-page section of photographs. There are three indexes - for names of people, names of organizations, and "events, ideas, and topics" that should make the volume pretty easy to navigate.

Back in the 1950s, historian Theodore Draper had this to say about the letters collected in James P. Cannon's The First Ten Years of American Communism:

"Unlike other Communist leaders of his generation, Jim Cannon wanted to remember. This portion of his life still lives for him because he has not killed it within himself."

I think Sheppard has earned the same accolade for this re-conquest of a revolutionary period and a small revolutionary organisation. Every revolutionary, every antiwar activist, every fighter for human rights, democracy and socialism needs to study this book.



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